Rural relief: Governor signs veterinary debt assistance bill

Gov. John Hickenlooper signs the Veterinary Education Loan Repayment Program on June 5, 2017, as Dr. Lora Bledsoe, Dr. Mark Stetter, Rep. Joann Ginal, Dr. Sam Romano, and Leo Boyle look on. (Photo provided by Richard Schweigert)

Above: Gov. John Hickenlooper signs the Veterinary Education Loan Repayment Program on June 5, 2017, as Dr. Lora Bledsoe, Dr. Mark Stetter, Rep. Joann Ginal, Dr. Sam Romano, and Leo Boyle look on. (Photo provided by Richard Schweigert)

Map showing "In what state is your new employment"
A survey of CSU veterinary medicine graduates reveals they tend to stay in the West. (Map by CSU DVM Services)

Signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper on June 5, 2017, the Veterinary Education Loan Repayment Program paves the way for veterinarians to work in rural communities where large and small animals, and their owners, need professional services.

Like most accomplishments in rural Colorado, the passage of the bill was the result of hard work by a group of people who care deeply about agriculture. Thanks to bipartisan support from Rep. Joann Ginal (D-Fort Collins) and Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Northeastern Colorado), and input from the state Department of Agriculture, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, and the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, Dr. Mark Stetter and leaders from the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences successfully steered the bill to the governor’s desk.

“Dr. Mark Stetter, Dr. Ashley Stokes, and their team have a global, holistic vision of the state that really inspired people to work together,” said Dr. Sam Romano, president of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association and a 1983 alumnus of the CSU veterinary program. “The CSU folks do such a wonderful job putting their effort where their mouth is, helping people and animals.”

Intern, Daniel Jackson and fourth year veterinary students Jennifer Milner (Blue) and Katie Powell (Pink) visit Morning Fresh Dairy on thier weekly primary care service visit. Local commercial dairy farms are used as teaching laboratories for 3rd- and 4th-year veterinary students. The College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences' Dairy Ambulatory Service works with commercial dairy farms, both on-farm and in-hospital, providing a complete primary care veterinary service, January 26th, 2015.
Colorado State University veterinary students Jennifer Milner and Katie Powell visit Morning Fresh Dairy on their weekly primary care service visit. Local commercial dairy farms are used as teaching laboratories for third- and fourth-year veterinary students. (Joe Mendoza/CSU Photography)

With more than 34,000 farms on nearly 32 million acres, Colorado agriculture consistently ranks as one of the state’s top three leading industries, providing more than 173,000 jobs, contributing more than $40 billion to the state’s economy annually, and feeding the world with nearly $2 billion in exported products, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

But there is an acute shortage of large-animal veterinarians in rural communities. “Hopefully, this loan repayment program will provide additional opportunities for students to ease the burden of debt and move forward with assisting our agricultural producers with their veterinary needs,” said state Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown, a third-generation farmer in Yuma, Colo.

Trusted professionals

Like their human medicine counterparts, veterinarians are trusted professionals who help tie a community together by caring for animals, supporting their owners, and protecting the food supply. “Veterinarians work very closely with physicians, the communities rely on them. This bill helps maintain the fabric in rural Colorado and keeps it from fraying even more,” said Romano. “Cattle production and agribusiness is important to this state. The meat and the milk don’t just show up in King Soopers by accident.”

Mark Stetter, Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Colorado State University, October 26, 2016
Dr. Mark Stetter, Dean, CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Speaking from experience running his family farm in Sterling, Colo., Sonnenberg has seen the need for veterinary care up close.

“Rural Colorado and agriculture are highly dependent on veterinarians,” he said. “It takes a special person to practice in rural areas and many choose another option because of the financial obligations after college. I am anxious to see how many students this will entice to practice in rural communities.”

Once the governor appoints a council to review applications, veterinary medicine graduates from 2017 forward can apply for up to $70,000 in student loan debt relief. Here’s how it works:

  • They must have graduated from an accredited doctor of veterinary
    medicine school
  • Currently live in Colorado or, at some point, have lived in
    Colorado for at least 3 years
  • Agree to practice veterinary medicine for up to four years in
    a rural area of the state that is experiencing a shortage of
    veterinarians as designated by the council for participation in
    the program

“One of the things I learned through this process is that the debt young veterinarians come out with is almost $150,000, and what keeps them from working in rural areas is the need to pay off that debt,” said Ginal, who earned her Ph.D. in reproductive endocrinology from Colorado State. “There are a lot of farmers and ranchers out there who need veterinarians, and this is an incentive for those who want to practice in rural areas of Colorado. I really am proud that we passed this bill.”

Dr. Lora Bledsoe’s moving testimony

Dr. Laura Bledsoe touching the back of a horse
Dr. Laura Bledsoe practices in Hugo, Colo., and testified in support of the rural veterinary debt relief bill. (Provided by Lora Bledsoe)

Dr. Lora Bledsoe earned her bachelor’s degree in animal science at CSU, and went on to graduate from the veterinary medicine program in 2013. Now practicing in Hugo, Colo., she testified in support of the bill:

I was that kid who grew up always wanting to be a veterinarian. I also knew from the start that getting into vet school would be one of the hardest things I could do, and that paying for that schooling would be the second hardest. When it came time to pick a college, although I had several options, I picked Colorado State because it was my most affordable.

Throughout my undergraduate career, I earned over $30,000 in scholarships, used my college savings as frugally as possible, and I worked. In fact, I worked three jobs and went to school full time. My daily routine included waking up at 3 a.m. to feed the 20 horses I boarded at my house, then driving an hour out to Weld County to work on a dairy, driving back to attend class all day, then return home to care for the horses again. On the weekends, I would get extra work as a research assistant.

I was able graduate from vet school knowing that through hard work, planning, and perseverance I had paid off $100,000 of my educational costs. Unfortunately, I also knew that I owed over $130,000 more. After graduating, I followed my passion and took a job in rural Colorado. I am currently the only veterinarian under the age of 40 for 80 miles in any direction. In our area, there is one veterinarian for every 85,000 food animals. I work on average 60 hours a week and am on call every other 24-hour period. And I make substantially less income than my colleagues in urban areas.

Dr. Laura Bledsoe examining a brown cow's face
Dr. Laura Bledsoe practices in Hugo, Colo., and testified in support of the rural veterinary debt relief bill. (Provided by Lora Bledsoe)

There are not many established job opportunities in underserved areas, and as a result new graduates do not have much on their side when negotiating salaries or benefits. Currently, my $1,400 a month student loan payment comprises one-third of my net income. My position does not offer any health insurance, disability insurance or liability insurance, all of which I have to pay out of pocket.

I have sought out assistance through the federally established program for three years and have been denied each year. In 2015, despite having 18 shortage area counties, not a single veterinarian in Colorado was given federal loan repayment. The safety of our food supply depends on new graduates like myself establishing ourselves in rural areas. But with debt loads on the rise and salaries stagnant, this is becoming increasing impossible.

The Bledsoe family has a long history of speaking out for rural Colorado here in the capitol. Please join my family in supporting the sustainability of Colorado ranching and the safety of our food supply.